Nobody warned Grace Park about leaping into the sci-fi universe.
Like William Shatner before her, Park went boldly if blindly into the TV remake of Battlestar Galactica, and with all best intentions. The show was filming in her hometown of Vancouver anyway, and it was a chance to expand her acting portfolio. It was a job.
Warp-drive forward four years and the ex-model and University of British Columbia graduate (she has a degree in psychology) is the screensaver poster girl for millions of sci-fi devotees and part of a broader pop-culture phenomenon peaking at the same time it is ending, as did the original Star Trek series. For someone who craved anonymity, Park entered the wrong TV genre.
"I never wanted fame, of all things, and I'm not just being cheeky," says the willowy, wiry actress, in Toronto recently to push the upcoming final season of Battlestar Galactica (beginning tomorrow on Space). "There are benefits that come with being famous, but there's also confusion. It's important to make sure your feet stay on the ground."
Both grounded and sharp, Park has created her own growth curve on Battlestar Galactica, or BSG, as the fans know it. The intense and critically lauded sci-fi series is currently gearing down production in Vancouver - once the remaining eight episodes are filmed, lights out - while simultaneously growing in public awareness. It's still the hottest show no one is watching.
Case in point: A few days after her Toronto stopover, Park and nine of her BSG cast-mates turned out in force on Late Show with David Letterman to present the Top 10 Reasons to Watch Battlestar Galactica, to promote the last-season launch on the Sci Fi Channel in the United States. Park firmly delivered No. 7: "What else are you going to do? Read a book?"
It's a given that some of the select BSG audience watch for Park's presence as the sexy-tough space pilot Lieutenant Sharon (Boomer) Valerii. While seemingly human, Boomer is in fact a Cylon - a high-functioning android and member of the robotic scourge threatening to eradicate mankind in the complex BSG timeline. Besides Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, there are few precedents for playing androids on television, and BSG executive producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick provided minimal character direction.
"It was a challenge," sighs Park, who initially auditioned for a different BSG character. "When I started, I was told that, for all intents and purposes, I was playing a human, which made it easier. Until they told me, 'Grace, you're a Cylon, she wouldn't do that.' And later, I learned that Cylons are actually more human than humans. This has been an ongoing exploration."
The BSG creators put their faith in Park's potential to grow into Boomer. Born in Los Angeles, but transplanted at 22 months with her family to Vancouver and raised in the city's largest Korean community, Park's pre- BSG résumé included teen modelling, small parts in the action feature Romeo Must Die and the TV movie L.A. Law: The Movie, and a recurring role in the CBC teen series Edgemont, in which she played the shy student Shannon Ng.
"It was a Canadian show on CBC," Park recalls, "so the budget was small and we only shot a few months a year. It was a completely difference experience from Battlestar, which was like joining this huge family."
In the beginning, baptism into the BSG clan required Park and several other cast regulars to be shipped off to boot camp, somewhere near Chilliwack, B.C., for military-style indoctrination. The actors were instructed to remain in character all weekend, and yes, there were drills. "There were four instructors waiting for us when we got off the bus; they made us stand in single file and we were assigned flight suits and we ate MREs [meals ready-to-eat] and ran drills in the forest. It wasn't the Four Seasons."
Much of the show's adulation stems from the show's sly use of allegorical storylines to parallel real-world events. "If you're dialled into the news and what's happening in the world, you can pick up on the show's geopolitical elements, as well as the spiritual myths playing into the storylines. It's very rich," Park says.
Breaking new ground for sci-fi programming, BSG was proclaimed the best show on television by Time magazine in 2005, and has since received similarly glowing recommendations in Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and other publications.
"We've certainly had accolades in major magazines, but we've never been mainstream in terms of viewership," Park says. "The show airs on cable in the U.S., which means fewer people are watching. More viewers have picked up on Battlestar lately. Some people are just starting to watch the show."
And for whatever reason. The inclusion of attractive, occasionally half-dressed ladies in military gear into the BSG template is simply evidence of the producers knowing their audience.
Unlike the original series, where the most viewers could hope for was Lorne Greene in a space-age caftan, the undeniable babe element in the new version is personified by Park and BSG regulars Tricia Helfer and Katee Sackhoff - respectively featured in saucy Maxim photo pictorials long ago downloaded by the show's fan base.
Both bemused and at ease with her global sex-symbol status, Park frequently appears at sci-fi conventions, including the world's biggest: the annual ComicCon in San Diego.
"It's amazing because there are more fans every year and the event has gotten bigger each time I've been there," Park says. "I'm convinced that some day ComicCom is going to merge with the Burning Man Festival and devour America."
While it took Shatner three decades to shake off Captain Kirk, Park is proving there is life after sci-fi television. She's already filming the dramatic series The Cleaner, scheduled to make its debut on A&E this summer.
The concept of The Cleaner casts former Law & Order mainstay Benjamin Bratt as the leader of an addiction-recovery team, which includes Park. "The show deals with all forms of addiction - gambling, drugs, drinking - and the scripts feel really good. It's a different pace from Battlestar. It feels real," she says.
And to maintain her own sanity, or anonymity, all Park need do is go for a stroll in her own neighbourhood. "When people in Vancouver do recognize me, they hide it," she says with a laugh. "I went to a store near my home and I know they're Battlestar fans - they have pictures on the wall! - and I know they know me, but everyone was so smooth and pretended I wasn't there. Most people don't realize how good they are at acting in everyday life."
Battlestar Galactica airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET on Space, starting tomorrow.
March 14, 1974, Los Angeles. Grew up in Vancouver. Lives there with her husband, Phil Kim.
Graduated from Magee Secondary School, 1998. Degree in psychology from the University of British Columbia. Speaks English, Korean, French, Cantonese.
Romeo Must Die (2000).
Other film roles
West 32nd (2007).
Notable TV roles
Edgemont, Jake 2.0, The Outer Limits, The Dead Zone, The Immortal.
Sources: Scifi.com, wikipedia, imdb.com